Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Why is the BJP victory important for the local media of Tripura?

[This article was first published on TripuraInfo.com. You can find it here.]

In the mid-90s, when the Left Front came to power, Tripurites had no idea about the internet, smartphones were stuff of legend and news used to transmit slowly, very slowly indeed.

This was the time when Tripura was under the dark clouds of insurgency and it took almost 6 hours to travel the short distance of 180 KM from Agartala to Kailashahar, the district headquarters of the then North Tripura district. With no train available, for travelling from Agartala to any of the northern towns, one had only three fixed times to board the bus – 6 AM, 12 AM and 3 PM, occasionally there would be night supers as well. All the buses for different destinations would assemble on the outskirts of Agartala city at Champaknagar. From there an armed convoy of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) would escort more than 100 vehicles comprising of trucks, buses, small four wheelers and bikes through the three hill ranges – Baramura, Atharamura and Longtarai. The vehicles moved in a single file after a registration of all the number plates.

The people were used to such surveillance as it was for their own safety. The Tripura State Rifles were not yet developed into the elite task force that they are today. The CRPF was doing a decent job, but the insurgents actually dominated the hills. Nobody would take the risk of travelling alone through the hills on the Assam-Agartala road (NH 44 then) even in a medical emergency.

So, each morning various newspaper dispatches reached the bus stop at Agartala early in the morning for the moffusil towns. By normal calculation, they were supposed to reach the readers by afternoon. But, magically, CPM’s mouthpiece Daily Desher Katha would reach every household by noon while the other newspapers would take the day off and the reader would only get to read them in the evening.

This system of news decimation was comfortable for the ruling regime. The people for their hunger of news would switch to Desher Katha often subscribing an extra paper to keep a balance in their political opinion.

For the Tripura population, the regime change that happened with the recently concluded election is like an earthquake. The Left Front-ruled for a quarter century. Among other things, it has shaken up a deeply rooted fourth pillar of democracy – the fourth estate.

Today, Tripura has more than 20 TV channels, 10-15 newspapers and a few web portals. In these times of 4G speed internet, all the newspapers have taken initiative to reach out to their digital audience as they have made their e-paper available for free on their website. Apart from that, news these days travel through social media – which however is very unpredictable.

Because of a generation-long rule by the Left Front, the local media of the state became very monolithic in their reporting and editing. The opinionated media had become very bi-polar. Half of the media houses were pro-government, while the other half was anti-government. In layman’s terms, half of the media houses were pro-CPM while the other half was anti-CPM.

Till March 3, a group of news outlets, who operate in different media like newsprint, television or as web portal, did attack the ruling government on all fronts. TripuraInfoway, a web portal, was leading the crusade. While apart from the CPM mouthpiece Daily Desher Katha, TV channels like Akash Tripura were defending the regime tooth and nail.

With the change of the millennium, we saw the death of unbiased news sources like All India Radio. In Tripura, all but one TripuraInfo.com were busy selling opinion. TripuraInfo, even if its growth is minimal, has stuck to its journalist ethics and does only a reporting job like the AIR and leaves the interpretation for the reader to make.

Dainik Sambad, the Bengali mammoth is actually the largest daily in Tripura. It survived the offensive of Desher Katha for two decades and became the alternative news source for the average Tripura household. But, in the meantime, even though it remained true to its journalistic ethics, it did develop an anti-government attitude. Now, this is fine as long as this remains so. Dainik Sambad has always attacked the government on policy issues and not on cheap scandals.

Now that there has been a change in the government itself, Tripura’s local media houses need to take Indian Express editor Ram Kamal Jha’s statement more seriously – “criticism from the government is a badge of honour for a journalist.”

With an all-new ideology ruling the state, only time will tell if we can see a new wave of fierce journalism from the state or it will again vanish in the corners of a national newspaper.